Writer's Block

Mind the Gap

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. ~Hilary Mantel  

True Confession: I'm a tad obsessive when it comes to my running mileage. If I set out to run seven miles, by God, I'm going to run seven. If the Maritime Center—my ending point—is fast approaching and my Garmin reads 6.43 miles, I'll take a left at Taylor and track and up and down each block until I close in on the magic number. Do I run past my mileage goal? Heh Heh Heh.

 

And so it is with my daily word count. Each writer defines their own good "butt in chair" day; I find a word count goal keeps me focused and motivated.

 

When I embarked upon the Novel #2 journey two weeks ago, I established the weekly goal of 10,000 words. Factor in a day for editing and research, another to work on other writing projects, and (here come my mad math skillz, look out!) that's 2000 words each day I work on the Novel. I try to crank out 3k on Sundays—the start of my writing week—to build in wiggle room for the unexpected during the week, such as last week's weird 24-hour flu bug. So far, I'm holding steady.

 

Sunday. Today. The start of my work week. I'd left myself notes for a new scene, had already visualized the setting, the conversation, the emotions. I planned a 3000 word day—easy-peasy. I couldn't wait to get started.

 

Then, I couldn't get started.

 

Five hours in and only a thousand words, some of those written last week and left hanging in an earlier scene. My brain, mushy after two poor nights' sleep and still throwing off that flu bug, just couldn't muster the words.

 

If I feel the stall during a run, I force myself to keep on. Ignoring exhaustion, soreness, boredom, I focus on the next half mile and get through it. Endorphins take over and finish the job for me.

 

But every so often, I'll get a couple of miles in and know today is not my day. I might take a walk break and resume the run, but if the mojo truly is gone, I reset the Garmin and find a shortcut home. As a morning runner, I can always salvage the day with an afternoon hike.

 

If my writing focus fades, I keep the fingers on the keyboard, give myself permission to write crap and keep moving. The story takes over, suddenly it's hours later and I'm telling myself, "You must stop at 4:00. You promised to go for walk/make soup/see a movie. Good job, Little Buddy!"

 

Today I couldn't pull it together.

 

Stop. Reset the Garmin. Find a shortcut home.

 

Word Count be damned. Open the gap. Create the space.

 

Today, I stopped scowling at the problem. I bundled up and headed out, Bach in my ears and trail shoes on my feet. I breathed.

 

Saturday, I set out to run 8 miles. I went to 9 because it all felt so good.

 

If you'd told me two weeks ago, when I typed "Chapter One," that I'd be 21,337 words into a new novel in fourteen days, well. Dude.

 

Find the Gap.

Getting some perspective. Admiralty Bay, Port Townsend 2/02/14 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Before and After

I knew this day would come. For months, I've been anticipating it with equal parts dread and jubilation. Well, no. That's crap. I've dreaded it. The day I would begin writing Novel Two. My mind has reached forward these past couple of months, wondering which story drifted just beyond my grasp. What would I write next? I have a few ideas tucked away, but none of them feels right, not right now. With Novel One, I had a very clear picture in my head of two characters, two eras, a place and one footnote to history. That's a lot to start with. It's a whole plot, in fact.

This time, however, no strong image came to me, no question begged to be answered and I've felt a little panicky. Shoving away the doubts and keeping my focus on the story in front of me, I told myself to trust the writing.

During this journey I've learned—particularly when things got very scary late summer-early fall and I was certain I'd birthed a disaster—to keep writing. Eventually, you will write yourself out of a hole. You'll figure it out before you even realized you've figured it out. You just keep writing. It all comes together in the end.

Friday, I sent Novel One to the publisher I'd pitched to in October. I met my goal and set the manuscript aside, to be reviewed and revised in the months to come.

I gave myself Saturday to rest and savor the ending of one thing and the delicious anticipation of something new. I went for a long run, during a NOAA-defined "hazardous wind event." I managed to find a brief window where the rain held off and the wilds winds sent the clouds scurrying to Vancouver Island. The rest of the day it rained needles and sunspikes, but I had dry ten miles.

During my run, I caught this interview with E.L. Doctorow on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. Doctorow chatted with host Scott Simon about the inspiration for his new novel, Andrew's Brain, and about the process of writing. What he said was a balm to my fretting soul. It's a great interview. Listen to it.

"..write in order to find out what you're writing. You don't start with an outline and a plan, you start with these images that are very evocative to you..." E.L. Doctorow

I'm not much of an outliner or planner. I tend to write to my intuition and let my characters guide my pen. That all sounds very lovely and mysterious, but an inexperienced writer can sure twist an ankle or sprain a wrist falling into her own plot holes this way. Ahem.

With Novel One, I was so eager to begin the journey and so terrified I wouldn't retake the road if I stopped along the way, that I didn't bother to fill the gas tank or stop at the ATM for cash on the way out of town.

With Novel Two, I'm taking a more structured approach, while still allowing for the magic of accident and the unforeseen. I will begin by discovering whom I'm writing about, and why.

After my run, I curled up on the sofa, turned to page one of a murder mystery set in 1919 Surrey, England and didn't move until I came to "The End" a few hours later, when it was time to share an Old Guardian Barleywine with my husband and watch The Godfather.

Yesterday, I mucked around with laundry, grocery shopping, yoga, baking bread, shredding a bunch of crap, organizing a bookshelf, doing a sweep of my hard drive, watering plants, until the weight of what I had to do became too heavy to carry. I had to face the blank page.

I took a brand-new notebook, my favorite pens, walked to a café overlooking the bay and the Olympic Mountains and there I began to write. I wrote eight pages of a character sketch, discovering the protagonist of a story that's only beginning to take shape in my mind, because I've only just met the woman who has given me her story to tell. Give us some space. Give us some time. We'll get back to you.

The 'Before and After' Shot

Do I have to Carpe Diem today?

Go on - take at your Pinterest board, at the magnets on your fridge, at the coffee mugs replicating like rabbits in your cupboard: I reckon there is at least one version of Carpe Diem in the lot. Scattered about in forms tangible and virtual are quotes admonishing you to live life to fullest, every day, for you never know when it may be your last. Me? I've got Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi tacked to a bulletin board; scribbled on the inside cover of my writing practice notebook is Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life ~ Seneca. But sometimes, no - most of the time - that's just more ambition than I'm capable of sustaining. In my mind, I'm the high achiever who plans to climb Kilimanjaro and pursue an MFA and march on Washington in favor of stricter gun access laws. But in practice, I'm made of simpler stuff. The thought of living at full throttle wears me out. It makes me a little sad. Maybe I will die tomorrow, but today the laundry needs folding, the car insurance is due, I'm fretting about work, my weight, my 401k. Does a life more ordinary mean a life less lived?

And hey, didn't Nero force Seneca to commit suicide? Maybe our favorite Roman Stoic jumped the shark with his pithy advice.

There are times -  usually accompanied by a quiet peace or a ripple of endorphins - that my quotidian experience achieves a Technicolor apex. These are not epic events, but simple episodes when I focus my awareness within the moment at hand. It is wrapping a cane around a fruiting wire in a Waipara Valley vineyard with the sun warming my scalp and the Southern Alps throwing shadows across the afternoon; it is mile four of a long run, when my legs finally discover their rhythm; it is the sizzle in the pan and the swirl of aromas as minced onions and butter meet as I create art for the belly and the soul; it is conversing in French without searching for the correct verb tense; it is losing myself in laughter with a friend; it is that wrung out  and hung out feeling after a good day of writing, knowing that I moved aside and allowed the characters find their way.

Nothing monumental, just a sense of doing and being as I'm meant to at that moment.

I also know when I'm at far remove from these interludes, when I'm removed from myself. My friend Will, lighting yet another of those cigarettes that eventually killed him, would drawl in his South Carolina-thick French, "Julie, j'ai le cafard. J'ai le blues."  He would confess his melancholy when work was getting him down. I knew he dreamed of opening an antiques store on the Maryland coast; he lived long enough to realize that dream. Not as long as he should have, but he had his moment.

My blues - that cafard, that cockroach of ennui - come when I spend my time and energy on things which are necessary but not fulfilling. Or on things which are unnecessary, but pleasantly distracting. In both instances, I turn away from that which makes me feel challenged and complete, either because I must - the car insurance has to be paid, yes, it does - or because I am too afraid or too lazy to leave behind the easy affirmation and pursue a lonelier path.

But I can't Carpe Diem every single bloody day, can I?

No, but I can beat back the encroaching cafard which refuses to die. I can start every single day on the page.

I've struggled with the words these past weeks. I've resisted, procrastinated, meandered, despaired, dilly-dallied, denied, tarried, equivocated, prevaricated. I've been very busy doing everything but what I most want to. I'm not sure entirely why this is - it's not writer's block, unless one counts blocking one's own way with dilatory tactics and self-doubt. However I knocked myself so far out of my groove, I'm working, slowly, to knock myself back in.

I hit a manuscript milestone a couple of weeks ago: 50, 000 words. That felt like something. I'm now filling in scenes that were half-starts, completing characters' stories; I'm even thinking, 50,000 words in, that an outline might come in handy. I realized at 50k that my rough draft goal of 78,000 words was too modest, so I upped it. Perhaps I can put off that outline for another 10k or so.

I'm further along than I thought I would be at this point. But I can't shake the feeling that I'm losing ground, that I keep waiting for life to be just a bit more conducive to my creativity before committing wholly to my story again. I know the answer to that. I know my story is just waiting for me to return.

Here's a William Saroyan favorite to end with a little platitudinal dissonance:

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Most days, I think the best I can do is try to be alive, with a smidgen extra: to laugh and to move, to listen and to look outside of myself. And to write.

Water Child

I have fought of late to keep my balance. I am dashing in and out of work projects, blitzing through study sessions for a wine certificate, planning in fits and starts for our April adventure in France, trying to get my hostess act together for friends' arrival in June for the Seattle Rock-n-Roll Marathon, signing up for a swim clinic as I pursue a goal of an autumn sprint tri, getting back my running mojo now that eye surgery is behind me. Doing all these things with gusto, but not doing any of them very well. I'm scattered, at loose ends. I'm not unhappy; in fact, I feel outrageously alive and annoying cheerful. But I do feel a little out of control. For a Virgo, this is Situation Intolerable. And I have not been writing with direction. Nor reading with purpose. I recently posted elsewhere in my virtual world that I used to read 2+ books a week; now it takes me 2+ weeks to read a book. My center has been knocked astray.

But today, brought in on a warm southerly wind, the muse appeared. She was off in the distance when I began working on a story last weekend, but this morning she decided to pay me a proper call.  I have the distinct feeling that she prefers me slightly hung over, revved on caffeine, and mildly hysterical from lack of sleep.

And now the wind is tossing the rain so hard that the windows seem covered in wrinkled and twisted plastic wrap. I feel a November need to nest, even though the rhododendrons in the front yard are ready to burst with magenta blooms. It is a day created for writing and I gratefully showed up to the page at an early hour.

I am working on a story I have titled Water Child, set in Tokyo and at the Kamakura complex of shrines about an hour outside the city. Last week I fought for control of my protagonist's voice. Today I let go and let her speak. I had chosen a name for this character, but as I read through my draft, I discovered I had typed another name, one that belongs to a different person. At that moment I realized I had set myself aside and allowed in the woman whose story I am trying to tell.

And now I return to her, to discover what she has learned on our journey together, where she will go next, and if I will be allowed to follow.